Senators push Garland to reform prisons after AP reporting

The leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee are demanding Attorney General Merrick Garland take immediate action to reform the beleaguered federal Bureau of Prisons in response to Associated Press investigations that exposed widespread problems there, serious misconduct involving correctional officers and rampant sexual abuse at a California women’s prison.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa; and California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla sent a letter to Garland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco on Wednesday. They want the Justice Department to turn over a slew of information about employee misconduct and procedures in place to stem sexual abuse.

The letter is the latest illustration of increasing scrutiny of the scandal-plagued bureau following the AP’s reporting. Last week, the Senate launched a bipartisan working group to focus on the federal prison system, and lawmakers have been introducing legislation to increase oversight of the nation’s 122 federal prisons.

Multiple congressional committees also have been investigating the Bureau of Prisons and its director, Michael Carvajal, who announced in January he was resigning amid increasing scrutiny over his leadership. Durbin had called for Carvajal’s ouster after the AP reported in November that more than 100 federal prison workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since the start of 2019 and detailed several violent attacks inside federal prisons across the U.S.

“We write to urge you to take immediate action to address serious failures by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to operate federal prisons safely, securely, and effectively,” the senators wrote. “BOP employs more than 36,000 individuals, the majority of whom are honest and dutiful. Still, the misconduct of even a small percentage of BOP staff can ravage the lives of individuals in the Bureau’s custody and damage the reputation and credibility of the institution.”

The Justice Department did not immediately comment on the letter. It has said it has a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual assault and is continuing to work to improve issues in the Bureau of Prisons.

Besides the widespread corruption, the bureau has faced a multitude of crises in recent years including the rampant spread of the coronavirus inside federal prisons, a failed response to the pandemic, dozens of escapes, deaths and critically low staffing levels that have hampered responses to emergencies.

The lawmakers want Garland and Monaco to provide information about the bureau’s training protocols, procedures around the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act and statistics about reports of sexual assaults inside federal prisons.

This comes weeks after the AP uncovered a permissive and toxic culture at the federal correctional institution in Dublin, California, where inmates say they have been subjected to rampant sexual abuse by correctional officers and even by the warden and were often threatened or punished when they tried to speak up. The abuse was so pervasive that prisoners and workers at Dublin called it “the rape club.”

So far, four workers at the prison have been charged with federal crimes, including the former warden, Ray Garcia. Several others remain under investigation.

Garcia is accused of molesting an inmate as she tried to push him away and making her and another inmate strip naked as he did rounds, prosecutors say. He also is accused of taking nude photographs of the women, which were found on his personal laptop computer and government-issued cellphone when the FBI raided his office and his home last summer.

Garica, who has pleaded not guilty, had been in charge of training staff on sexual assault and harassment protocols and was in charge of compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, which requires regular inspections of prisons to ensure compliance. The woman Garcia is accused of assaulting told investigators that one instance of abuse happened while PREA officials were visiting the prison. She said Garcia assaulted her in a changing stall designed for PREA-compliant searches.

The allegations at Dublin are endemic of a larger problem within the Bureau of Prisons. In 2020, the year some of the women at Dublin complained, there were 422 complaints of staff-on-inmate sexual abuse across the system of 122 prisons and 153,000 inmates. The bureau said that it substantiated only four of those complaints and that 290 are still being investigated.

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